MY HEAD EXPLODED : TALES OF DESIRE, DELIRIUM AND DECADENCE FROM
Translated by Geoffrey Chew, Introduction by Peter Zusi
Jantar Publishing. 204 pages. Ł15. ISBN 978-0-9934467-1-9
Karel Hynek Mácha. Translated and with an introduction by Geoffrey Chew
Jantar Publishing. 138 pages. Ł12. ISBN 978-0-9934467-6-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I’m venturing into unknown territory by writing about what was being
But every country has its traditions, and although its literature may only throw up a handful of major writers, there are always plenty of others who contributed to its variety and development. To be given an opportunity to see some of their work in translation, especially that of what might be thought of as minor writers, is always valuable and interesting.
I suppose it’s inevitable that, coming across the term, fin-de-sičcle, one tends to think of Huysmans and A Rebours, or of Oscar Wilde and the fragile English poets like Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson. But if we use fin-de-sičcle simply to designate a period rather than a mood, a style, or a particular approach to creativity, then it’s obvious that a variety of writing will have been produced during the years concerned. Not every author wanted to view the world as in decline, or subject to a myth of decadence, with madness and self-indulgence in drugs and other forms of escapism dominating. It’s perhaps true that writers focusing on such subjects often tend to be remembered, and sometimes even held up as typical of a time.
If this is the case, Arthur Briesky’s “Mors Syphilitica” might be an example to use to demonstrate how a subject can be viewed as signifying an aspect of a fin-de-siécle atmosphere. In it Death visits a syphilitic young man – the sores on his face and his attempts to cover them with powder are vividly described – and promises to spare him if he refrains from any further sexual activity. They go out, into the city, with Death occasionally pausing to gather someone to his fold – “an old woman huddled in a shabby coat”, and an old man who has had a stroke – and eventually arrive at a wild party where the young man can’t resist kissing a woman he meets and lusts after. With this act he seals his fate, and, in despair, commits suicide. With syphilis having an almost-plague like impact in many European cities in the nineteenth century (think of poetry, prose and art coming from London, Vienna, Paris - Briesky’s story takes its lead from an illustration by Felicien Rops) we are in a society that seemed doomed to fall because of its decadence.
A plague of the kind that swept
The courtesan is invited to a party being held so that the people present can, they hope, defy death. She declines at first, but then, knowing that she herself has been infected, decides to attend so that she can spread the disease among the people she despises. It could be that this story reveals some of the fear of women that was a hallmark of fin-de-sičcle art and literature. Bram Dijkstra’a Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sičcle Culture (Oxford University Press, 1986) is a detailed study of the subject. The courtesan in Marten’s story may have good reasons for what she does, but the fact that she is prepared to disperse the plague among both men and women, some of whom she probably doesn’t know, points to a kind of perversity in her thinking.
And what is one to make of Donna Flavia, a cold but beautiful female sculptress in Julius Zeyer’s “Inultus: A Prague Legend”, who persuades a young man to model for her as she attempts to re-create the look on Christ’s face as he was crucified: “Will you be the model for my King of the Jews in the hour of his death?”. This requires the man to be suspended on a cross and leads to her really crucifying him and placing a crown of thorns on his head, then thrusting a dagger into his side. He dies, and she initially hides the body, but eventually regrets what she’s done, and kills herself.
As I said earlier, fin-de-sičcle, if applied loosely to a period, can encompass other kinds of writing outside those described above. Božena Benešová’s “In the Twilight” is a fairly straightforward account of how a woman is disillusioned when the man she had assumed would propose to her after his wife dies, announces that he is going to marry his housekeeper. It has an element of irony in that the man, in his turn, has assumed that the woman will understand why the housekeeper is his choice and that they can still meet and be friends. She is naturally less than enthusiastic about the idea. The situation is recognisable and told in a way that extends sympathy to the woman.
František Gellner’s “My Travelling Companion” is a light-hearted
tale of the narrator bring burdened with an unwelcome companion as
he sets out to visit
There is also the brilliant “The Empty Chair: An Analysis of an Unwritten Tale” by Richard Weiner. With its discursive style, it purports to be “a pragmatic account of the non-existence of a literary work”. Instigated by a fragment of overheard conversation, in which one man was insisting that another should visit him, it quickly moves into discussions about readers, the difference between “sensory and psychotic horror”, reflections on ‘Visite’, a poem by Charles Vildrac, and a variety of other topics which have a bearing on why the story was never written.
There is an aside about how one of the writer’s other pieces was
inspired by a painting by František Kupka. And along the way, there
is a long anecdote about how the narrator met a friend in the
street, invited him home to have some tea, asked him to pop down to
a local shop to get something to eat, and waited in vain for the
friend to return. Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind (“The Man in the
Crowd”) when reading this story. The narrator says that the incident
occurred when he was living in
There are several other pieces in And My Head Exploded which can be read with pleasure, and there is an informative introduction and short notes on the various authors.
Gypsy by Karel Hynek Mácha moves further back in the nineteenth century (it was originally published in 1835) and takes the reader into a world of ruined castles, decadent aristocrats, gypsies, Jews, superstitious peasants, thunder, lightning, a madwoman, and all the other Gothic characteristics of the Romantic movement. Two wandering gypsies arrive in a small village and, in due course, proceed to upset the applecart. Things and people are not as they seem, and revelations about who the gypsies really are, and how they’ve found their way to the village, eventually tumble off the page. It’s all very melodramatic, though somewhat lightened by Bárta, a heavy-drinking elderly veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who keeps up a running commentary on his supposed exploits, most of which are so exaggerated that they can’t possibly be taken seriously.
There is a long, scholarly introduction to
Gypsy by Geoffrey Chew
which places it in context and points to its relevance to Czech
history and folklore. He is informative on the subject of Gypsies,
and their origins, and how they were, at one time, believed in
Western culture to have come from the Czech
There are references to the novel’s relationship to Romantic writers